Near the end of last semester, the Progress staff got fed up with vast quantities of black ink clouding the police reports we received from the Eastern police department every week. The reports were so heavily redacted we couldn’t list names in the police beat without running the risk of libeling someone.Remedying the situation was tricky because the Progress wasn’t formally requesting the reports from the university. Eastern police gave us the reports we used each week as a courtesy, which meant they could remove whatever information they desired before giving them to us. And since formal requests could take weeks to process, our only option was to take the readily available censored reports.
We had to figure out how to end the unnecessary redactions without delaying information to our readers.
In order to determine what the police department was redacting that couldn’t be redacted when a formal request was made, we sent a pair of “Freedom Of Information Act” requests to the university, asking for copies of about a week’s worth of police reports. When we got these reports, we were surprised to see just as much black ink on the formally requested reports as on the freebies we got from the police department. On some reports, even more information was redacted on the formally requested version.
We immediately complained to Eastern’s university counsel. The university was relying on a single statute under Kentucky law that allows the redaction of “information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
While it is a necessary and useful law for protecting innocent people from sensationalist media or prying eyes, the Progress staff felt the university was clearly misusing the statute to redact information the public had a right to see.
University counsel didn’t see it our way, and in the meantime Eastern police had begun redacting even more information from their free reports, so we took the next step and appealed the university’s response to our request to the Kentucky Attorney General.
We sent our appeal during the very last week of the semester, and ran an opinion on this page explaining what was going on.
In our appeal we stated specifically, “the university has overstepped its authority in redacting, as a blanket measure, all of the addresses from these reports.”
In a reply to our appeal, the university counsel reiterated that the redactions were allowed under a statute in Kentucky law, claimed the Progress had never informed the counsel of its discontent before the appeal-a false and irrelevant claim-and tried to argue that the information contained in the heavily censored reports was “fully adequate to serve the public interest in determining whether the University’s Police Department properly carried out its.responsibilities.”
During the summer, the office of the Attorney General reviewed the appeal, and ruled in favor of the Progress.
With the exception of a police report involving a juvenile victim and an alleged sex offender-a redaction the Progress supports and agrees with-the Attorney General ruled that “Eastern Kentucky University improperly relied on KRS 61.878(1)(a) in redacting the addresses of persons whose names appeared on incident reports.”
The Attorney General also stated it agreed with the Progress’ opinion that “addresses can only be redacted on a case-to-case basis, when the address is clearly irrelevant to the media or possibly damaging to an ongoing investigation.”
Beyond our specific challenge of redacted addresses, the Attorney General agreed with the Progress’ opinion that the university was misusing the statute allowing redactions of personal information and over-censoring its police reports.
To back up its support of the Progress, the Attorney General cited a similar case involving the University of Kentucky and the UK student newspaper.
In that case, the Attorney General stated that the public interest in obtaining open records free of redactions “has been, and will continue to be, treated as superior.absent a particularized showing of a heightened privacy interest.”
Translation: the police cannot redact information from formally requested reports because they think there might be an invasion of privacy. They must first show specifically why it is an invasion of privacy.
While this is a victory for the public interest, it is not the end of the story. Eastern police can still remove whatever they want from their free reports.
Over the next few weeks, the Progress will be working with the university counsel and Eastern police to obtain uncensored police reports without the wait associated with a formal request.
From previous conversations with Eastern police, Progress staff members are aware that Eastern police take their cue from the university counsel on what to redact. Hopefully the university counsel will be willing to give the police some new cues, based on the Attorney General’s ruling.
If university police are unwilling to allow the public to see the open records they have a right to see in a timely manner, the Progress will continue fighting and holding the university accountable, every week, until things change.